American Indians have long been romanticized or vilified in Europe and other places, even North America for that matter. Many wrong ideas, stereotypes and long-held assumptions continue to persist even in this day and age, and generalizations and flat out ignorance exist about indigenous peoples from the blatant level to the subtle.
Much of it is based on films, television shows or books non-natives may have read that were written by non-natives, especially those who were not as knowledgeable or as objective as they claimed.
Some authors presented their ideas or viewpoints, whether they had conflicting original knowledge or not, in an attempt to create a greater “stir” or anticipation for their work, whether it was accurate or not. And in my opinion, whether its fiction or non-fiction, there is a responsibility any author or writer must bear when they misrepresent a people, culture or anything else. Of course, that is debatable. I believe in creative license, but I also very much believe in responsibility for whatever you write or support.
There are popular camps and groups here in Germany where children and families go to “pretend” to be Indians. They live in mock tepees and get little bows and arrows, and costumes (in the exact sense of the work) and spend a weekend or some days: being “Indians!” And they don’t want to be corrected for the wrongness. It’s their right, of course, to (re)enact whatever they wish. But for many, though they may acknowledge some things may not be accurate, they say it’s all in good fun. Yet, the crucial point is, no matter what they say, when confronted with a situation or a real American Indian, they quote some of their so-called knowledge from such things as if it is fact. Not fun at all.
Or you have the film series of the “Native American” looking fellow who did random heroic deeds, romanced women and basically looked “stone-faced” the whole time that people think of as representing American Indians. Reference Gojko Mitić, the Serbian actor who played in those films. I saw a stack of them in an Aldi’s (discount market) one day. Went through the cover images and titles, and had to stop my burst of laughter. Not that they were bad, because I haven’t seen them, but just because it struck me as funny, and some people here think that’s how “real” Indians are and look. My article, “What’s a ‘Real’ Indian?”
Conversely, I’ve read of, seen images then had direct testimony from those who have “taken up” the American Indian way of life. You can find photos of groups of Russians, for example, who have studied Indians and then prepared tepees, and others goods and lead a nomadic life in their country. Yes, if you’re native, you might already see the inherent problems: not all American Indians lived in tepees. There were/are hundreds of tribes of American Indians or Native Americans, whichever you choose use, who had their own languages, customs, traditions, history, etc. even if we may have all come from a common ancestral group. If you want to be technical or ascribe to that belief, all humankind came from one common ancestor.
The point of my post, or rather what caused the thought process was that a few weeks ago I visited an Ethnological Museum here in Berlin, with a friend of mine, because they had a new exhibit of modern Native American art. I was interested anyway, but also wanted to see how many actual native created works were in the exhibit or was it interpretative work from non-natives. I was pleased to see ALL the works were from native artists.I thoroughly enjoyed viewing them.
The majority were from Hopi artists, the vast majority. Next were from tribes of the Pacific northwest, but unfortunately only a few examples from Plains Indians, others of the southwest and southeast. I would sincerely like to see more from those tribes in the musuem. The exhibit runs until October 2012, so if you know or are a Native artist would be interested in having your work displayed, why not contact the musuem?
So, the museum had a “regular” area where a large amount of American Indian artifacts, handwork, weapons, clothing, etc. were on display all year round. There were many signs with information about various tribes, their history and bits and pieces of knowledge “did you know?” type questions around, some of which I did take exception to because the information was not strictly correct. It had clearly been interpreted from an outsider’s view, without apparently asking an Indian the significance of this or that dance or ceremony. Still, I found it alright overall, and was beginning to feel a more pronounced homesickness as I saw beadwork, moccasins and decorations that reminded me of the many evenings or days I’d spent with my People working at craft, telling stories and just hanging out. But fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I came across a display that stopped me cold, and then my temper heated up.
Introduced by a large sign stating, “American Indians and Alcoholism,” the information launched into close to being mock historical examples of the dangers of “fire water” and how it devastated the Indians, and continues to be a problem. The biggest problem American Indians face today, in fact (it said). What’s wrong with that statement?
The biggest problem American Indians face today is losing their culture, their language, their sense of identity in a world that continues to grow more apathetic to the beauty and ancient wisdom indigenous peoples are still a part of!
Alcoholism is a problem, no doubting that, but it is a symptom of a far larger cultural illness. It is an illness that can be cured, but it is complex.The museum staff chose to represent this “problem” of natives in a glass display with a crushed Budweiser can and a flask of whisky next to examples of beadwork.Who thought that was clever?
I felt it to be in dreadfully poor taste, close to being offensive. I stopped short of it being fully offensive because I do not believe it was intentionally meant to be demeaning, although I felt it was. I felt there should be a different way of demonstrating a point, and I actually wrote the museum to express my thoughts and respectfully request they reconsider their display. Of course, I did not and do not expect to ever hear anything back from them regarding it, but I felt it incumbent upon me to object. You can write them also here: email@example.com regarding “The Exhibits and Information on Native American Indians of North America.” Their website is www.smb.museum.
There comes a point when one is tired of being treated as a stereotype, even if we may laugh and joke about it among ourselves or those who know us. One of the best websites I’ve seen with native jokes and example of such stereotypes is here: a collection of Native American Indian jokes. The first time I read some of them, I absolutely rolled, because they were so true. Some of the attitudes and examples of ignorance or “un”-knowledge regarding Indians I’d heard from people in the U.S. but even more so here in Europe. Like when someone asks me where I bought my choker from, or my flute or clothing, and I tell them either I made them, a relative did so or they were passed down through my family…and they look at me in surprise. Or they ask me if I am Mexican or from a country in South America, and I say I’m American Indian…and they say: “Oh, it’s all the same thing.” When I ask them if being German is the same thing as being Swedish or Russian or French, they vehemently object.
“But you’re part of the same continent, aren’t you? You might be confused to be from another country if one doesn’t know you personally or your language, correct?” They, of course, must agree. “But you are not Swedish or Russian or French, so why should you accept someone telling you, ‘Oh it’s all the same thing’?” Some look discomfited then, but the purpose of my questions is not to make them look stupid, but rather to make them really think about what they just said: the huge cultural generalization they made. I tell them, I don’t accept it anymore than they wish to be called Russian, and lose their own distinct culture and history.
Okay, Mexicans are a people who have distinct regions and traditions also, and they are a mix of Spanish and indigenous peoples, and yes, the Apache especially compared to other tribes, since their roaming grounds included what is now northern Mexico…have cousins over there, too. But we are still distinct.
I was discussing culture identity on an ex-pat private web group, and one member who was Swedish put forth that they felt it was divisive to state that one is of a certain culture. He felt it was basically stating that you were better than other people. But what his attitude and close-minded reasoning didn’t take into account was the other side of the equation.
First of all, why should he feel threatened because someone says, “I am American Indian” (for example)? He had stated he was Swedish. That is a people and culture, isn’t it? Yet then he commenced to bash other cultural references specifically indigneous peoples because it apparently made him feel like his own culture wasn’t as important.
My culture is a part of me. It is my heart and soul. It is how I feel and think. It cannot be better than someone else’s culture simply because it is different, and I believe it is absurd to try to say there shouldn’t be any differences because that’s impossible. We, as humans, will never be all exactly the same size, weight, height, color, blood type or any other such thing. So why are differences a bad thing? They do not have to divide, as long as there is discussion and understanding, an adoption of mutual tolerance and respect. Honestly, sometimes I think people like this Swedish O.P. harbor resentment, for what reason I cannot ascertain and wouldn’t attempt to assume. Rather I would prefer to discuss, and provide Europeans and others with a more accurate perspective of what being an American Indian is, or rather, what it can be.
Quoting Sonny Skyhawk in his article on Indian Country, “What Are the Challenges of Walking in Two Worlds?” This summation is terrific.
“Collectively, we have paid a very dear price. Ours has been a culture that has relied on the oral transmission of our history and values. Our languages and have suffered tremendously, and therefore our cultures have suffered tremendously, and we find ourselves struggling to hold on to as much of both of them as possible. Obviously, we have lost almost all of our lands—what is less obvious is the lingering cost of the occupation and holocaust we have experienced remain to this very day. These haunt us in a more subtle, even subliminal, way.
Yet we have evolved and are dealing with the hand we have been dealt, so to speak. We are and remain a viable, vibrant and proud people, with the same dreams and aspirations as anyone else. Today, having retained our values and beliefs, we are doctors, lawyers and every other profession that is found in mainstream society, and we are moving ahead in many constructive ways.”
* * * *
Other articles of mine on Native American topics: